SFC defends proposed changes to student publications’ pay structure

Controversial decision would circumvent state and federal labor laws

The Student Fee Committee—the branch of the Associated Students of Portland State University in charge of the approximately $13 million in incidental fees collected from all PSU students—has come under scrutiny after its Jan. 15 meeting, a part of the annual deliberations phase of their budget process.

Controversial decision would circumvent state and federal labor laws

The Student Fee Committee—the branch of the Associated Students of Portland State University in charge of the approximately $13 million in incidental fees collected from all PSU students—has come under scrutiny after its Jan. 15 meeting, a part of the annual deliberations phase of their budget process.

Michele Toppe, dean of student life, is an advisor to the SFC.
Drew Martig / Vanguard Staff
Michele Toppe, dean of student life, is an advisor to the SFC.

While proposed changes to the pay structure for students working for university publications—including the Vanguard, The Rearguard, the Portland Spectator, KPSU, PSU-TV, Pathos Literary Magazine and The Portland Review—have been hotly contested, the committee and its advisors say that they are acting in the best interest of all PSU students.

“A shift to student leadership awards reflects an effort by the SFC to make student compensation in publications consistent with our policy towards similar student positions across campus,” said SFC chair Mart Stewart-Smith via email.

Joel Eisenhower, editor-in-chief of Pathos, disagrees with the proposal.

“The claim that this move puts the pubs [student publications] in line with other student organizations has some truth to it,” Eisenhower said. “However, this argument is a red herring. The coordination of cultural groups and the administrative positions at ASPSU do not in any way equate to the editorial positions at the publications. While the former positions are concerned primarily with providing a service to the student body—and arguably for only a small percentage of it—the latter are concerned with regularly producing a physical asset that is available and designed for all the students on campus.”

Another area of controversy is the fact that this change will strip student-publication employees of all protections presently afforded to them under state and federal labor laws. Since the reclassified employees would be technically unemployed, they would no longer be eligible for unemployment insurance or food stamp programs. These are considerations that SFC member Sean Green admits were not discussed in deliberations.

“We never talked about unemployment benefits or food stamps in any of our budget meetings,” Green said. “We have only focused on what’s within the law and what model we can find that corresponds to our values of being responsible with the student fee.”

The proposed move would allow changes in compensation and student workers’ rights that would not be allowed under state and federal law, not by changing the substance of these jobs but by reclassifying them as something other than employment.

The controversy has its roots in the dissolution of the former university-wide use of a stipend program. As recently as 2009, all students working for organizations such as publications, ASPSU and Student Ambassadors were compensated as part of the Educational Stipend Program. The stipends, although explicitly described in university policy as “not intended to fully compensate student leaders for all of their contributions,” were awarded to enable a more diverse group of students to work in educationally rewarding positions such as student government or newspaper writing.

The stipend funds made up for needed wages that might otherwise be filled at part-time jobs that afforded less educational development, according to Dean of Student Life Michele Toppe. However, concerns were raised that the stipend system, which utilized the university payroll system, had grown to resemble paying employees rather than compensating student involvement or leadership, and new methods of compensating students were implemented.

“We moved away from [stipends], and many of the students who were compensated with the stipend moved to the educational leadership service award,” said Toppe. “All of ASPSU, Student Ambassadors and other student organizations moved to the educational leadership award model that paralleled the stipend system in some ways but didn’t utilize payroll and looked less like an hourly wage.”

Publications, however, transitioned to an hourly-wage model that is still in place. Editors, photographers, designers, copyeditors and writers are all paid an hourly wage based on the number of hours required to complete their assignments.

While there is no evidence that labor claims have ever been lodged against the university in this area, Toppe cites potential labor issues that can come up when using an hourly pay system.

“If you’re not getting paid for all the hours you’re working and you’re supposed to be getting paid by the hour, that’s problematic,” said Toppe. “There are still student workers who get paid by the hour who do hourly types of activities—essentially they have a time clock. And that makes sense…but it’s harder when we have this quasi-system for writers and editors, trying to figure out exactly how much time it takes to write a story.”

Eisenhower pointed out that this change would, in some cases, actually represent a decrease in compensation for the same work.

“I think the proposed changes represent a huge misstep by the SFC,” Eisenhower said. “In many cases, this will result in a decrease in the amount that the editors of the publications are paid. These jobs require a very high level of involvement and dedication, and to cut the pay of these positions would likely result in an overall deterioration in the quality of the pubs. How can the SFC expect people to do the same job for less money?”

Eisenhower also observed that these position holders could no longer claim the position as a job on their resume and that the school will save a substantial amount of money by not paying into the state unemployment insurance program. “That seems to be the true rationale behind this move,” he said.

PSU’s Human Resources department did not respond by press time to requests for information addressing the concerns raised in the Vanguard’s Jan. 17 issue.

According to the SFC, its aim is merely to treat all student organizations in the same manner.

“Part of our responsibility as a committee is to ensure the student fee is managed prudently while treating all funded areas fairly and equitably,” said Sean Green, SFC member.

ASPSU and the SFC are student-fee–funded areas, and while members are paid under the student leadership award model, they have allowed themselves special exemptions not afforded to other award recipients. While all other student workers receiving a student leadership award are required to attend three leadership classes each term in order to be eligible for compensation, ASPSU and SFC members are not required to do so.

Toppe cites the increasing cost of tuition and fees as further explanation for why the committee is examining the pay structure of publications.

“The fee-committee members have an obligation to do everything they can make sure that fee doesn’t go up any more than it should,” Toppe said. “The burden on the student population is great, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t help the committee think very carefully about all of their allocations and to make sure that all of their allocations have been wisely considered.”

PSU’s rapidly rising tuition highlights another problem with the student leadership award model, according to Eisenhower.

“In the new model, the pay for these positions would be dispersed through the financial aid office as a scholarship,” Eisenhower said. “The pay for these positions would immediately be applied to one’s student account. Therefore, if you had a running balance on your account, say, for a parking ticket or something, your pay for the term would be applied to that balance automatically, before you ever saw any of the money.”

The rising cost of tuition could see some students running over what their financial aid covers, and while PSU allows students to run one term behind on tuition, reclassified student employees would similarly be denied the option of taking advantage of the rule, which was designed to ease the burden on students who live from paycheck to paycheck.

“These positions are jobs, they are not scholarships,” Eisenhower said. “Michele Toppe was quoted as saying the university sees this as ‘incentivizing efficiency.’ To me, that’s another way of saying, ‘we’re going to pay you less and expect more.’ This is a veiled attempt to, at best, save PSU a bundle of money, or, at worst, to undercut the functionality and efficiency of the publications as a whole.”